100 Dallas Creatives: No. 71 Dance Captain Valerie Shelton Tabor
Contemporary Ballet Dallas
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When it comes to classical dance, most people have a pretty solidified opinion on whether or not they're a fan. If dance has a reputation for being boring or lacking innovation, it's largely unwarranted. Certainly there is no lack of inspired performers and choreographers.
Ballet - one of the most highly technical and rigorous schools of dance - probably takes the brunt of the wilting reputation. And, like many other forms of high art, dance is often only accessible by those of us who have disposable income to spend on fine arts. Tickets to the theatre are expensive, and dance studios don't always venture into neighborhoods where populations who need exposure to the arts most live.
But in a second floor dance studio off Mockingbird Lane, Valerie Shelton Tabor energizes the local scene, working to bring ballet to audiences that may never have enjoyed dance before. As the Artistic Director and a choreographer at Contemporary Ballet Dallas, Tabor is bringing innovation and accessibility to an art form that deserves modern audiences.
You have a pretty extensive background that includes both ballet and several years spent practicing law. How did your background as a dancer lead into going to law school?
It certainly wasn't planned that way. I had the best laid plans in the world, and none of what I'm doing is what was planned at all. Being able to follow where my life has taken me has been really cool. My dad is an attorney, but I was a dance major at SMU. My dad was always concerned about me being a dancer because it isn't a life with a lot of income, comes with a lot of instability, a high level of rejection. He was always pushing me into something more stable. When I graduated, I had to decide whether I was going to go to New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. At that time, dance companies were folding and dancers were leaving Dallas at an alarming rate.
There wasn't a lot of opportunity here. The whole "moving to New York, auditioning all over the place" cycle wasn't appealing to me. It wasn't what I wanted to do. My roommate was studying for the LSAT and complaining how hard it was, so I took it on a dare and did pretty well. My dad got really excited, but I still wasn't sure if I wanted to go to law school. We suddenly had this in common, and I went to law school. I put down dance for those three years of law school entirely, but I ended up coming back to it obviously. When it's in your blood, it's in your blood. I needed to get away from it to have it find me again.
Are dancing and practicing law alike in any ways?
The two have a lot of similarities. Being a dancer and having a very regimented practice schedule helped me learn drive and determination at a really early age. I was seeing people in law school who couldn't get everything done, and I knew I was more prepared. I was a double major at SMU, working on campus and off, and going to rehearsal when I wasn't working.
I had so much time on my hands in law school I didn't know what to do with it. Learning how to fit it all in, as we do in the dance world, made law school easier. Certainly I find being in trial more appealing than sitting behind a desk because you are in front of people. I like being in front of juries, I like being in front of judges. You're trying to leave people with an impression, whether it's an impression of guilt or innocence. You're trying to move an audience, and the body language and expression are very similar.
Do your professional and creative worlds ever converge in unexpected ways?
Sure. Working in theatres, I have come across crew members that have suddenly appeared in court. I've never been personally appointed for any of them, but I have seen them in the hallways at the courthouse. It's even happened with some company members.
Things happen, dancers have artistic temperaments and tensions run high and sometimes that involves police contact. I've also had some that have been witnesses, and I can navigate them through the process in a gentle way. It has happened, unfortunately. I can help with tickets and stuff like thats.
As both a dancer and artistic director, what is most important for Contemporary Ballet Dallas to convey on stage?
I always go back to our mission and why we started. When we started, Dallas Ballet had closed, and the really only paying jobs in town were Dallas Black Dance Theatre and one or two other companies. There was no dance here, and it was really bad. There was a lot of infighting amongst the dance community for a lot of reasons, and we were spending money on sports. Our stuff fell off the map. We didn't do a good job of marketing ourselves.
I felt like people have some harmful preconceived notions about dance. They think that it's boring, all the shows are Swan Lake and old classical ballet, and that it isn't a progressive art form. We started marketing to people that don't normally go see dance, and that's been huge for us. People in the dance community who love dance were always going to come see us, but we wanted to offer things that were more unique. We have shows where people are dancing to Nine Inch Nails. I want people to enjoy the show, but more than that, I want you to feel like you've been moved in some way. I don't want people to look at our shows and think "oh, that was nice."
The mission of Contemporary Ballet Dallas seems largely focused on making dance very accessible to people of all walks of life. How have you been able to bring ballet to a broader audience?
It's always been part of the mission to just make ballet available. That always comes down to ticket prices. As a parent, I want to bring my children to events. I can't guarantee if they're going to love it. I know that I don't want to spend $35 on a ticket per kid to get them to come to a show. So we offer a kid price. I feel that it is definitely, without a doubt, affordable to bring a family of four or five out to one of our shows. We also donate tickets to Art Reach that dole out tickets to their members. We're reaching out to people who straight-up can't afford it. We've also given tickets to foster families, but it all depends on what's going on. We're teaching classes through Buckner Children's Home as well, and we want to do a ticket component as well where they can see their teacher on stage.
What's most important to you in a dancer?
When I look at dancers for our company, it's not just about their technical ability, i want more than a beautiful arabesque. Dancers that are technically gorgeous but don't give you any emotion on stage fall flat. I want someone to suck me in. If my dancers can pull you into their story, that's what people want to leave with. I want them to leave thinking "that's not what I thought it was going to be, it's kind of cool, and I want to go again."
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